Essay: "The Embodiment of a Sensibility"
BY Advocate Contributors
March 27 2012 3:26 AM ET
Seven years ago, when my
grandmother JoAnn was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t imagine
anything less fair. At the time, I
composed a mental list of all the people I knew who could lose their minds
without anybody noticing. It amounted to
scores of bores I’d never heard say one original thing. While my grandmother, on the other hand, was the genius of the cocktail party, a Texas Auntie Mame, who always seemed poised with a staggering, stiletto quip.
To me, JoAnn was more than a person. She was the embodiment of a
sensibility. When I was a small boy, we’d spend hours beside her player piano dancing to zippy 1920s songs like “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” and “Nagasaki” and “Don’t Bring Lulu.” She had a pink telephone that rang
“Everything’s Coming up Roses” when anybody called. At restaurants, she’d tip the band to play “Hello, Dolly!” and then, she’d table-hop, until she found a man whose Louis
Armstrong impression was worthy of accompanying her. She was a life force, a diva, and very likely
the reason I had guts enough to come out of the closet, become an artist, and
move to New York City when I was 18-years-old.
So during the winter of 2005, in those early
months of JoAnn’s illness, I felt as though I’d been the victim of a bait and
switch, as though something magical, of infinite value, had been stolen from
me, and replaced with a cardboard copy.
At the time, I was probably angrier than I’ve ever been. I was also the most confused. Because though I felt I’d lost my
grandmother, she was, at least in a physical sense, right there, present and
I was 16, JoAnn told me, “Sad lives make funny people.” At the time, this remark had just sounded
like one more zinger. But eventually I
came to consider it the distillation of her philosophy. Humor was the way she’d coped with every
unpleasant thing in her life, from her long estrangement from my mother, her
only child, to the onset of a crippling disease. It seems that my mother and grandmother had
always hated each other, and I mean, from the womb. They were too much alike; too big for the
same screen. With them, it was always
Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford, and nobody ever won. But as JoAnn’s Alzheimer’s advanced, she
forgot all of that, and thanks to my mother’s good grace, and some heavy-duty
arm-twisting on my part, they were able to meet each other for the first time again.
And guess what? They went nuts
for each other.
this point, my grandparents had moved from Houston to our family farm outside
Nashville. So, in the final years of
JoAnn’s life, my mother and I flew back and forth from our homes in California
and New York, taking turns caring for her.
During this time, as I watched my mother, a tough cookie, take heroic
care of her mother, I was able to observe the process by which a family is
healed. The good news is that, in our
case at least, it’s a process for which gay guys and Southern belles are
particularly well suited.
In Tennessee, Mother
started her day by gently brushing JoAnn’s hair, and tenderly applying her
makeup with soft mink brushes. She
insisted that JoAnn have her “face” done every morning, and sent me flying
across Manhattan — from Bergdorf’s to Barney’s and back again — with elaborate
shopping lists of arcane moisturizers and astringents not to be found in the
city of Nashville. “Believe you me,”
Mother said, “they’re as vital as any old medicine.” And as I watched my mother become a cross
between Florence Nightingale and Mary Kay, I had occasion to think about how
deep superficiality can be, about how genuine artifice often is, and how tiny,
workaday actions can add up to miracles.
On the most literal level, my mother was just applying cosmetics, but in
the big, rushing narrative of our lives, she was closing the circle, breaking
the cycle, giving to my grandmother so much more than she’d been given as a
little girl. Unpacking her cosmetics,
Mother resembled a magician unloading a bag of tricks, and as she worked, she’d
speak softly, “Mama, now I’m lining your eyes… I’m rouging your cheeks… painting
your lips. Remember when you taught me
how to do this? When I was a little
girl? Remember, you taught me to dab my
bottom lip just so?”
I feel like this is a lesson
that gay guys know by heart. As a
community, we’re well acquainted with the power of fashion, and the unshakable
grip of the desire to protect those you love by managing appearances. The further my grandmother slipped away, the
more it mattered that she was treated like a person. And to ensure this, the finest arrow in our quiver,
mother’s and mine, was Maybelline — or better yet, Guerlain.
difficult to overstate the impact my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s has had on my
worldview, hard to articulate the extent of its influence on my thinking. The most basic conclusion it’s prompted is
that as long as you’re alive, anything is possible. That sounds almost unbearably Pollyanna-ish,
I know. It’s embarrassing even to write. But I’m not striving for optimism here. What I mean is that since life has an
agonizing tendency to offer us the best and the worst at the same time, to give
us what we ask for in an utterly unforeseen form, even fairly predictable
outcomes prove unrecognizable upon arrival.
Back in 2005,
when I first learned of JoAnn’s illness, I was terrified — for her, but also
for myself. I felt like she had so much
more to teach me, like I had so much left to learn from her. And as it turned out, I was right. The experience of caring for my grandmother
during her final earthly years, of “walking her to the garden gate,” as we say
back in Texas, not only healed my family, it made me a man, one false eyelash
at a time.
ROBERT LELEUX is the author of In The
Living End, the story of how his
grandmother’s unexpectedly funny decline into Alzheimer’s became an occasion to
reconcile with her daughter. He teaches creative writing in the New York City
schools. His nonfiction pieces have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He lives with his husband, Michael Leleux, in
Manhattan. Visit www.robertleleux.com
for more information.
Sign Up For Email Updates
- Women Op-Ed: Remembering Sakia Gunn: the News Coverage and Homophobic Murder 17 min 1 sec ago
- Politics Puerto Rico House Approves Antidiscrimination Bill 25 min 17 sec ago
- Entertainment News Week in Geek: Star Trek Actor Gets Wet and Naked, Justice League, and More 1 hour 13 min ago
- Activism Multimedia Project Addresses LGBT Rights Among Palestinians 1 hour 38 min ago
- Women WATCH: Sara Gilbert is a Lesbian Stereotype in Flannel and Birkenstocks 3:36 PM
- Women Lena Dunham Is NOT Amused By Lesbian Porn Parody of Girls 2:54 PM
- Music Gay Singer-Songwriter Deals with Heartbreak 2:52 PM